Fast fashion retailers must stop pretending.


I wince whenever I see a fast fashion brand talk about how they’re big on sustainability.

Many of these retailers have gone to great lengths to present themselves as an ethical choice for consumers. But let’s be honest: looking at it objectively this is nonsense.

 Fast food restaurants have executives who are devoted to promoting healthy eating — but that doesn’t mean burgers and chips are off the menu even though they play a significant part in the obesity epidemic. 

The same goes for fast fashion retailers. Yes, they may champion how they have a head of sustainability, but that doesn’t mean their business model is sustainable.

Ultimately, the idea of a head of sustainability at a fast fashion retailer is contradictory. 

A hidden problem

By definition, fast fashion can never, ever be sustainable.

These businesses that have become a mainstay of our high streets create products with inherent obsolescence. They are built NOT to last.

And most shoppers acknowledge that the bargain basement T-shirt, hoodie or shoes in these stores — piled high in a myriad of sizes — are not going to be worn in 12 months time. 

“Buy cheap, buy twice” is the mantra, and we accept that buying disposable clothing is a perfectly acceptable thing to do.

How is that sustainable?

If you head to the shops or online, you won’t have to wander far if you’re looking for clothes that are under £5.

When you take into account:

2700 litres of water are needed to grow enough cotton to make a single t-shirt. The textile industry is the second greatest polluter of local freshwater in the world. 

That the fabric will need to be dyed and processed.  (Around 20 to 25 percent of ALL globally produced chemical compounds are utilised in the textile-finishing industry)

That the fabric may well need to be transported thousands of miles to be made into fabrics and garments. (The fashion industry is responsible for 10 percent of the carbon footprint of the world.)

Bearing in mind that fast fashion brands will fully expect to make a profit on these items, it simply cannot be sustainable — and it’s questionable whether it can be ethical.

In recent weeks, there have been several stories that have brought this issue into sharp focus.

Change is needed

Last month, openDemocracy ran an article that claimed clothes orders worth billions were cancelled by global fashion brands as the COVID-19 pandemic intensified. With shops around the world being forced to shut their doors, demand was drying up.

You may think that retailers would end up taking these losses on the chin, but it’s alleged that the financial burden has been passed onto some of the world’s most vulnerable — those who are at the very bottom of the supply chain.

Estimates suggest that as many as 60 million people work in the global garments industry. 

Millions of workers, most of them women, have reportedly been left facing destitution because their pay has been cut, or they haven’t been given their wages at all. Others have been made redundant without severance pay.

How did this happen?

Well, it’s alleged that some international retail brands have refused to pay for goods worth millions of pounds, even though they were ordered before the pandemic. Others have demanded massive discounts or delayed payment for many months. 

There are numerous stories of Bangladeshi garment suppliers on the brink of collapse as a direct result of these actions with thousands of garment workers facing destitution.  

Can you think of any other industry where that would be allowed to happen?

Can you imagine going to the shops, buying something and telling the shop manager that you’ll pay in six months? Or demanding a 90% discount on a whim? The issue here is that for too long massive international brands have dominated the fashion industry. Their size relative to their small suppliers means they can exert massive pressure. 

It may be fashionable to think that this type of exploitation is only happening thousands of miles away — but other reports have shown that this problem hits close to home, too. In 2020.

Back at the start of the month, an undercover investigation by The Sunday Times revealed that one of Boohoo’s suppliers was paying its workers as little as £3.50 an hour at a factory in Leicester — well below the UK’s minimum wage of £8.72 an hour.

Worse still, social distancing measures weren’t in place at the factory, even though it was based in a city which was forced to go back into lockdown because of a surge in COVID-19 cases.

The National Crime Agency says it is now investigating “concerns of modern slavery and human trafficking.” Just a reminder: this is the UK. In 2020.

Boohoo is one of the companies that has regularly championed its sustainability credentials, but it appears that concerns about its business model have lingered for some time. Last year, the Environmental Audit Committee said Boohoo was one of the least sustainable fashion brands in the UK. 

Desperate to keep prices low, retailers apply pressure on suppliers. It’s clear that some unscrupulous suppliers end up passing this pressure to their workforce.

None of this is sustainable. Little of this is ethical. 

Change can happen

To get back on to a sustainable footing, the fashion industry needs to start selling products that are made with care — items that’ll last a decade. As Levi Strauss famously said  “Quality Never Goes Out Of Style”.

You may think this is unrealistic, but it can happen.

I was delighted to see a tracksuit that I designed for Puma in 1990 recently being resold — 30 years after it was produced.

Head to Camden or one of the UK’s many other vintage markets, you’ll see a bustling demand for pre-loved items from decades gone by.

Shoppers need to change their mindsets and shift their focus from the cost to buy to the cost per wear — taking into account how long a product will last.

Thanks to COVID-19, we’ve seen how adaptable the public can be. Now, the fashion world needs to reform

Saying you’re sustainable isn’t enough. You need to mean it, too.  Radical change is needed. 

Photo by 
Waldemar Brandt